Art

Heroin, Jail and Family Values

Photographer Ben Cleeton’s gallery, titled Green Eyes: El Viejo, displays the struggle of a convicted criminal to continue supporting his family

Photographer Ben Cleeton’s Green Eyes: El Viejo, on display at the Community Folk Art Center, deals with a time of crisis for a Syracuse family. Cleeton documents a six-month period when Luis Charlesman, also called Green Eyes, was out on bail and awaiting sentencing for felony possession of heroin. The exhibit moves beyond involvement with the courts to discussion of a family context, to Charlesman’s ties with his wife and two stepdaughters.

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On one hand, the show doesn’t sidestep interactions with the criminal justice system. Photo captions, and the artist’s statement, reference Charlesman serving two years in jail in Puerto Rico, convictions and jail time for selling drugs in New York City, and the latest charge.

One image depicts Charlesman in a cell within downtown Syracuse’s Justice Center, awaiting an eventual transfer to the Cayuga Correctional Facility where he’s currently incarcerated. Another photo depicts his wife, India Bolden, during a visit to the facility.

On the other hand, the exhibition presents scenes from family life. They include Christmas dinner from the 2014 holiday season; Charlesman reading fortune cards during a family gathering; a nephew and niece visiting the household; and his stepdaughter, India “Cita,” graduating from Le Moyne College. In a poignant scene, Green Eyes comforts his grandmother, who was receiving care at a hospital; later she died.

In addition, there are images demonstrating how Cleeton worked to both develop a narrative and communicate visual appeal. For example, one photo portrays Charlesman in a darkened room at Upstate University Hospital, with the only light coming from a cell phone. He came to the hospital because he had trouble breathing. He has also struggled with other health issues, including addiction. The dimly lit room seems to serve as a metaphor for his problems.

Another photo depicts Charlesman and a friend named Bebo in a neighborhood bar, Calcano’s Tavern. Their images are clear while a blur of colors envelop liquor bottles sitting on a shelf behind the bar.

And the show offers other photos accompanied with text that expands its perspective on the family. It discusses India Bolden’s employment at Upstate University Hospital, and the small auto repair shop that she and Green Eyes opened in 2008 when they first came to Syracuse. A series of portraits depicts family members; one memorable image shows Charlesman holding a cross and gold chain that were placed into his grandmother’s coffin.

Other images document conflict. In one instance, the wife tells Charlesman to move out and heads to downtown Syracuse. He and a relative drive around trying to find her.

With its portfolio of 26 color photos, Green Eyes: El Viejo isn’t a large exhibit. Yet it covers a lot of ground. It’s stark, as seen in a photo portraying Charlesman drawing blood from his arm to try to deal with blood pressure. It conveys intimacy through the portraits and other images.

Finally, although this exhibit clearly focuses on one family’s life, it touches on a larger discussion of heroin addiction. Over the last two years, print and TV reports have covered that problem in Syracuse and Liverpool, as well as Rutland, a small city in Vermont, and Provincetown, on Cape Cod, and other locales.

Green Eyes: El Viejo runs through Aug. 15 at the Community Folk Art Center, 805 E. Genesee St. The gallery is open Tuesdays through Fridays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Ben Cleeton, a recent photojournalism graduate at the Newhouse School of Communications, will discuss his work on Aug. 8, 1 to 3 p.m. For more information, call 442-2230.

Header image by Ben Cleeton

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